The Beautiful Sweater from Hell

2022 was not my most productive knitting year in terms of the number of objects made, but I did complete my most ambitious knitted undertaking to date: a full-on traditional Guernsey sweater for my husband. It took a full year, from swatch to finished object, and the sleeves were nearly an unqualified disaster. But the final result was totally worth it!

The Guernsey (or Gansey) sweater is a style of handknit sweater that originated on Guernsey, one of the islands in the English Channel between Great Britain and France. The island has been inhabited since the Neolithic era; the island was occupied by the Germans during WWII (if you haven’t read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, set in this period, I highly recommend it!). Today the Guernsey economy is primarily based in finance (offshore accounts, anyone?), but traditionally fishing and other maritime activities were a common way to earn a living. Spending so much time at sea, the men of Guernsey needed garments that would block the bitter sea wind but still allow them the maneuverability necessary for the rigors of sailing. And thus the Guernsey style sweater was born! Traditionally the knitting women of Guernsey didn’t necessarily need a written pattern to make these sweaters, but as I am not a traditional Guernsey lady, I found a lovely and easy-to-follow pattern from Knit Picks, one of my favorite fiber craft companies. I grabbed some worsted Wool of the Andes in Peacock from there as well — it’s one of my favorite workhorse yarns of all time (hey Knit Picks, I’m ready for my sponsorship).

My gauge swatch for the sweater, November 2021. This nighttime photo is not at all true to color.

Now Morgan has a habit of choosing complicated patterns. The last sweater I made for him was lovingly dubbed the Sweater of Doom because holy moss stitch, Batman. So. Much. Moss stitch. It was exhausting and I told him I’d never make another one. And it’s true, this Guernsey pattern was different…but equally grueling for someone who has mostly been knitting simple baby blankets and stockinette tank tops for the last 18 months. Hence its designation as the Sweater from Hell.

It’s not that any individual thing about the sweater was overly difficult, it was more that the pattern was just involved enough (purl designs, cables everywhere) that it required constant reading of charts and counting rows, so I could never zone out in the same meditative/easy-to-watch-tv way I can with other projects. This is part of why it took so damn long to knit the thing — I kept setting it aside because I just didn’t have the energy to focus on it.

But there were genuinely complicated (for me) things about this sweater, too — Guernsey sweaters use a different kind of construction than I’d ever done before. From the armpits up to the tops of the shoulders, the front and back were knit separately, which is easy enough, and in fact I’d done that before. The really weird part for me was the shoulder strap, which is exactly what it sounds like: a skinny strap across the top of the shoulder connecting the front and back panels into one piece, which helps to allow for greater arm maneuverability (remember the fishermen). In the case of my pattern, this strap was a cable that carried all the way down the length of the sleeve.

The sleeves were also a real adventure. Because of aforementioned shoulder roominess needs, the pattern is written for fairly wide upper arm circumference. But since my beloved husband does not have expansive upper arms, they just came out…baggy. Like, super baggy. I was pretty horrified. We examined the pattern photos as closely as I could and at least in the model’s poses, the sleeves did not look nearly as baggy as the pattern had them written to be, so I’m not sure if it was a pattern issue or a me issue. In any case, I ripped the first sleeve entirely out and started over, following my gut instincts for how to make it fit Morgan’s arm well, and I’m very pleased to say it worked out perfectly when I went with my instincts!

Once I got the sleeves figured out, the deadline was my main concern. I ripped out and restarted Sleeve #1 in the first week of September. We had a trip to Scotland planned for the first week of November, leaving me just under two months to complete two sleeves — and not just any sleeves, but fully patterned and cabled sleeves, the measurements of which I was having to improv —and block the damn thing, and sew in a label so Morgan could tell which way was frontways. If you’ve ever knit a non-bulky sweater on a deadline, you know that this can be a bit stressful and a bit hard on the ol’ wrists and fingers.

My best knitting buddy

But somehow, I got through…

Excellent back label courtesy of Shelli Can. Terrible photo color courtesy of poorly lit nighttime conditions.

…and with ten whole days to spare! And so the Sweater from Hell at last made its majestic debut in Glasgow and on our day trip to Stirling Castle and the surrounding country:

I am so very pleased with how this sweater turns out and how well it fits. Morgan absolutely loves it and will get great use of it this winter season. He is the most knitworthy person, but after this labor of excruciating pain love, I think I’ll just be knitting for myself for a while!

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